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For years, my wife and I daydreamed about getting a van and becoming nomads. But now, with retirement approaching and an actual around-the-U.S. trip scheduled, the prospect of van life is suddenly filled with specific questions to answer before we head into the sunset.
“The beach is my living room,” says Ed Fajardo, who travels the coast of California in his “surf-adventure van,” a 2017 GMC Savana. He converted it from a cargo van himself by watching YouTube tutorials, and he posts photos of his adventures on Instagram at @xllented.
To answer my questions, I turned to Fajardo and others who have already blazed the trail — and are sharing their advice on websites and social media platforms such as Twitter under the hashtag #vanlife.
Here are seven essential questions (though there are many, many more) to help shape the plans of anyone with wanderlust.
1. What level of comfort do you want?
The term “van” loosely refers to many vehicles, from an empty shell with sleeping bags to a luxury van with beds, a kitchen and a bathroom. But most of these larger setups are referred to as RVs (recreational vehicles) that might need hookups to provide water and electricity.
If possible, try out your van for size before you commit to a long stay in it. For example, a retired librarian, who rented a Jucy Van and traveled with a friend, discovered that scrambling up a ladder to her bed was awkward. But, she says, “it was still a lot better than sleeping in a tent.”
There are dozens of other sub-questions in this area that will guide you to choose the right amenities for your van, including:
Do you want a shower and a bathroom? (See below.)
Will you be cooking and eating in the van?
How many people will travel with you?
Do you need an all-wheel drive to explore the backcountry?
2. What size vehicle do you want to drive?
Frankly, I don’t want to pilot a land yacht dragging along a compact car as a runabout vehicle. And the more money I can save, the more I’ll enjoy the trip. I want to be a stealth traveler. And the van I choose will have to double as our around-town vehicle while on trips. But there are other considerations for long journeys:
What route are you taking? To the mountains? Coast? National parks?
What kind of fuel economy do you want?
Is high-roof clearance a problem for parking garages?
Do you want to use the van as a second vehicle when not vanning around?
Is your van secure and inconspicuous?
3. How much do you have to spend on a van?
Of course, there are rental companies, but they may come with mileage restrictions. So for longer trips, many people buy a van. One young van-lifer chose a used diesel-powered gray market Mitsubishi Delica that cost $15,000. Another popular gray market choice is Toyota's HiAce. Fajardo considered many options but bought his Savana for $34,000 out-the-door. It took him two years to install the amenities — including wood flooring and paneled walls — and he estimates those upgrades cost $5,000 to $8,000.
4. Where can you poop?
Put this fundamental question to van travelers and they don’t giggle embarrassingly. But most vans don’t come with a toilet because of the limited space, the extra weight of carrying water and the complexity of a toilet system. Instead, Fajardo carries a “pee bottle” and a portable toilet filled with wood chips. But, he says, he mainly uses public toilets in rest areas and restaurants.
5. Where will you wash?
Again, this involves extra water and waste. Many folks join a national health club chain to clean up or use pay showers in truck stops. FitRV.com says that the showers, such as those at Pilot Flying J, are expensive at about $12, but are “fifty billion times better than 99% of all the campground showers.” Fajardo saves water by taking “bird baths” with a washcloth and carries baby wipes for touch-ups.
6. Can you cook?
Imagine parking by the ocean and having a quiet dinner as the sun sets. But cooking in close quarters is tricky and even dangerous. If you don’t vent the stove properly, the fumes can be lethal. Budget travelers use a foldable backpacking stove. Fajardo, a retired aerospace engineer, installed flexible solar panels on his van’s roof that charge a lithium-ion battery to run a fridge, microwave and blender.
7. Where do you park?
Most van travelers prefer free parking — but that comes with conditions. Many Walmart stores and some other businesses (even casinos!) allow overnight parking. In cities, travelers share information online about semi-legal parking places. “But I’m always worried about that dreaded knock in the middle of the night from the police,” says one van-lifer. Fajardo has a Plan B (nearby Walmarts) before he goes to sleep — just in case he gets “the knock.”